Profuse yawning and excess sleepiness are clear giveaways.

Mackenzie Dunn
Nov 17, 2020 @ 2:36 pm
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Credit: Jamie Grill, Getty Images

Nobody likes the feeling of being tired—but sometimes, no matter what kind of sleep apps, supplements, or early wind-down routines you try, you just can’t seem to get enough sleep. Ideally, healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, according to  National Sleep Foundation guidelines, but studies show that nearly 30% of Americans are getting six hours of sleep or less per night. The reality is that you might be more than just tired. You might be straight-up sleep deprived. Psychologists and the CDC argue that our nation’s chronic lack of sleep is more than a personal problem; it's a public health one and, in many ways, a growing epidemic. If it's a problem you suffer from, just know that you're far from alone.

But what are the signs of sleep deprivation, what you should look out for, and how you can get your sleep back on track? We tapped two sleep experts for their science-backed advice.

What is sleep deprivation?

Put simply, “sleep deprivation is when a person does not get the recommended number of hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle,” says Wayne Leslie Ross, senior sleep researcher for InsideBedroom, a mattress company. He explains that our circadian rhythm is a natural internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats with each rotation of the Earth, roughly every 24 hours. Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can mess with this rhythm and lead to some detrimental side effects. It's more than just being a little extra tired the next day. Sleep deprivation can seriously mess with your body—especially if it's considered chronic.

According to Alex Dimitriu, M.D., a double board-certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine, "Chronic sleep deprivation is what happens when people consistently get less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night. It adds up over time, and it takes more than one night or a good weekend of sleep to catch up," he says. According to him, many people who are chronically sleep deprived don't feel better after a good night of sleep because it takes much longer for the body to catch up and feel well-rested again.

Ross tells us that sleep deprivation can be caused by several factors, including age, underlying medical conditions, medication, stress, and a range of other lifestyle components. It can also be a side effect of an undiagnosed sleep disorder, including insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or restless legs syndrome, which you may need to see a doctor for.

How do I know if I'm sleep deprived?

“The easiest way to tell if you are sleep deprived is to ask yourself if you could fall asleep at any point during the day," says Dr. Dimitriu. He tells us that there is a big difference between fatigue and sleepiness. "Fatigue is being tired and unmotivated. Sleepiness means wanting to sleep," he says. Dr. Dimitriu often asks his patients, "Would you be able to fall asleep right now, if given the opportunity to do so?" If the answer is yes, it's likely that you've passed the point of being fatigued and entered the point of being deprived of some much-needed sleep. "Sleep-deprived people have trouble staying awake, especially in the afternoon and often in the later parts of the evening," says Dr. Dimitriu. "Oh, and they also often fall asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow."

What are the signs and symptoms of sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation signs:

  1. Frequent yawning
  2. Excessive sleepiness
  3. Irritability/depressed mood
  4. Increased anxiety
  5. Reduced focus
  6. Weight gain
  7. Increased dependency on caffeine

If you've lost sleep for a couple of nights in a row, you may experience some of these signs, but it's more likely that these will be most recognized in someone with chronic, ongoing sleep-deprivation. According to Dr. Dimitriu, weight gain, depressed mood, increased anxiety, and reduced focus are some of the most common symptoms of sleep deprivation, while Ross says that frequent yawning, irritability, and excessive sleepiness are telltale giveaways as well.

"Chronic sleep deprivation can even affect an individual's appearance," says Ross, and studies have found evidence to prove this. One 2016 study noticed that sleep deprivation disrupts the brain’s regulation of appetite and energy levels, which can often leave you craving fatty, starchy, and sugary foods. Additionally, Dr. Dimitriu says that he often sees sleep-deprived patients reaching for an extra cup of coffee to combat their tiredness, and while you know your body and what works best for you, he warns that caffeine dependency is recognized as a form of addiction, and chugging down an extra cup or two as a last-ditch effort to be more awake could end up doing more health harm than good.

How can I combat sleep deprivation?

The most obvious solution to being sleep deprived is to get more sleep, but as we all know, it's often more complicated than that (especially if you recently had a newborn). Sleep can be evasive if your body is not properly trained to recognize when it is time to wind down, which is why Ross recommends trying to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals four hours before bedtime and trying not to exercise within two hours of going to bed. Additionally, Dr. Dimitriu says to limit screen time as much as you can before bed (your phone can diminish overall sleep quality and depth, he says) and to sleep in a cool, dark, and quiet environment when possible. According to him, when it comes to combatting sleep deprivation, "ensuring you get a full seven to eight hours of sleep per night is essential."